The lesson in this week’s reading is that we should be moved and want to show appreciation for anything nice that someone does for us, whether big or small.
This week’s Torah portion is Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22), and with it, we begin our annual reading of the book of Deuteronomy.
Devarim, and most of Deuteronomy for that matter, is essentially Moses’ final sermon and ethical will to the Jewish people before he dies and the Jewish People proceed into the Land of Israel.
In Moses’ words:
“I instructed your judges at that time, saying, ‘Listen to your brothers and judge righteously between a man and his brother or his litigant. You shall not show favoritism in judgment, small and big [cases] alike shall you hear…'” (Deut. 1:16)
Moses is reminding those charged with judging the people that they are to judge fairly without showing favoritism to any litigant, no matter what the person’s background or social status. Indeed, the Torah and Talmud warn repeatedly against bribes, favoritism and all such preferential treatment.
Contrary to popular misconception, bribes do not necessarily refer to a monetary payoff. For example, we are told that even greeting a judge in an exceptionally warm manner is considered to be a form of bribery. Whenever a judge feels that he may have been a victim of bribery, no matter how remote, he is to withdraw himself from the case.
For example, the great Talmudic Rabbi Shmuel was once trying to cross a rickety bridge. A bystander went over to help him, as he, too, was on his way over the bridge. When reaching the other side of the bridge, Shmuel asked this individual where he was headed, to which he replied that he was headed to Shmuel’s court for a case to be tried against another litigant. When Shmuel heard this, he disqualified himself from the case as he felt that the act of kindness this person performed for him would unintentionally persuade him to rule in his favor.
In a similar case, the Talmudic Rabbi Ameimar was sitting in his courtroom. One of the litigants noticed a feather on his clothing and walked over to him and removed it. On the spot, Ameimar disqualified himself from the case, saying that he was concerned that the act of kindness the individual performed by brushing off the feather may inadvertently sway him to rule in his favor.
In one more such case, a sharecropper who would normally deliver Rabbi Shmuel Bar Yossi’s produce every Friday once delivered it on a Thursday on the way to the rabbi’s court to have a case tried. Rabbi Shmuel disqualified himself from judging the case lest he be affected by the benefit of having his produce delivered earlier than usual.
I’m sure most people reading this have cracked a smile by now, if not laughed out loud, wondering how such trivial favors could somehow be interpreted as a bribe. I agree! In fact, the commentators suggest that the lesson from these stories is not one regarding bribery, but rather, a lesson regarding gratitude and appreciation.
The reason we crack a smile when reading these anecdotes is because we have lost our sensitivity to gratitude and appreciation. We have become accustomed to taking things for granted. It is generally only the ‘big’ things and the ‘important’ things that arouse a feeling of appreciation within us. We generally do not thank our wives anymore for the clean, folded laundry or the grocery shopping “that she has to do anyways.” Indeed, maybe if we showed appreciation, we would all be in happier marriages.
The message of Moses, and the message of the Talmud, is: We should be moved by and want to show appreciation for anything nice that someone does for us, whether big or small. Remember, bribes do not always involve money!
For for insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below: